Still not back: Boko Haram insurgency uproots 800,000 children, says UNICEF

A new report details the misery of civilians caught in the crisis. Tuesday marks one year since the abduction of more than 200 schoolchildren from the town of Chibok in northeast Nigeria. 

Edwin Kindzeka Moki/AP
In this file photo taken on Feb. 25, 2015, a family of refugees that fled their homes due to violence from the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram sit inside a refugee camp in Minawao, Cameroon.

Around 800,000 children have been driven from their homes as a result of fighting between Nigerian forces and Boko Haram, according to a report released today by UNICEF. Its publication comes amid new reports of the brutality of the Islamist militants' rule in areas under their control.

The UNICEF report estimates that more than 1.5 million people have been displaced by the fight with Boko Haram, including 1.2 million in Nigeria and another 200,000 in neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. UNICEF says that many of those are "staying with host communities with little access to humanitarian support, putting additional strains on already stretched health, education and social services."

Children in particular have been victimized by Boko Haram: UNICEF estimates that the number of displaced children has doubled over the past year to 800,000.

Children as young as four years old are being used within the ranks of Boko Haram – as cooks, porters and look-outs. According to accounts by escapees, young women and girls who have been abducted have been subjected to forced marriage, forcible religious conversion, physical and psychological abuse, forced labour and rape. In addition, children have reportedly been recruited by vigilante groups fighting against Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria.

As people flee their homes, a large and growing number of children have been separated from their parents. An assessment conducted in 33 locations in Borno and Yobe States in Nigeria found nearly 2,400 separated and unaccompanied children among a population of nearly 150,000 displaced persons.

The report's publication comes a day before the anniversary of the kidnapping by Boko Haram of more than 200 girls from the town of Chibok, an incident which drew international attention and outrage (#Bringbackourgirls" was briefly a social media sensation). UNICEF's regional director for West and Central Africa, Manuel Fontaine, said in a statement that the Chibok abduction "is only one of endless tragedies being replicated on an epic scale across Nigeria and the region."

The fate of the Chibok girls remains unknown. The Globe and Mail reports that many in the region around Gwoza, a one-time Boko Haram stronghold that the Nigerian government recaptured at the end of March, believe that they were taken into the mountains near the border with Cameroon after the town fell. Liatu Andrawus, a young mother who escaped from Gwoza in December, told The Globe and Mail that she had met some of the girls during her captivity.

“They told me they were the Chibok girls,” she said, recalling snatched conversations with the students when the male guards had sent them away to do their ablutions and Islamic prayers. “We always talked about how we could escape. Sometimes we sat down and prayed together and hugged and cried. They were remembering their good moments with their parents and loved ones.”

At least one other former captive in Gwoza also said the Chibok girls had been there, The Globe and Mail reports.

While the Chibok girls remain missing, the liberation of Gwoza has opened another window onto the brutality of Boko Haram's reign, including the near absence of governance. Kevin Seiff, the Nairobi bureau chief for The Washington Post, writes that "almost every building [in the town] has been bombed or burned or looted."

Now, the once-bustling city of 275,000 looks as if it has been racked by a series of natural disasters. Homes have been burned and ransacked. Boko Haram has become known for its indiscriminate campaigns of burning and looting in the towns it seizes. In Gwoza, even the radio tower was somehow destroyed, so it droops downward like a dying plant. It was clear to the troops that although they had won the city, it was uninhabitable.

In a separate essay, Mr. Seiff, who has reported from Afghanistan, writes that while "Boko Haram, like the Taliban, has presented itself as a religious alternative to a dysfunctional, irreligious government," the group – unlike the Taliban – made no effort to govern in Gwoza.

In Gwoza, no one seemed to long for the days of Boko Haram. When people who had been displaced began to return, they told of unspeakable horrors — their husbands killed, their wives raped, their children gunned down.

I thought of the relics of a Taliban court I once saw — a symbol of an archaic and inhumane system of justice, but nonetheless evidence of an attempt to govern. Gwoza appeared to have had nothing like this.

Seiff notes that in Afghanistan, government forces struggled to hold onto territory captured from the Taliban, as Afghans found life under the group's governance to be tolerable, even desirable. But with Boko Haram apparently disinterested in anything other than destruction, Seiff found no similar sentiments among the Nigerians the group ruled in Gwoza. "This fact seemed to me a reason to be hopeful" that the fight would go better, he writes.

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